Book Review by Lisa NoratoThe Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin Books © 2000
Several years ago, I received a copy of this amazing book. A good friend and critique partner urged me to read it, but because I felt squeamish about the mention of cannibalism in the description, I decided I wouldn’t enjoy it and tucked it away. Then recently, I caught the trailer for the upcoming 2015 movie based on the book. Wow! On the screen were New England sailors of the Federal era on a dangerous sea journey – the very same period and setting of which I write my novels. I searched out my copy and, for curiosity’s sake, read the preface. I was hooked. More than hooked, I was sucked into an unbelievable yet true, suspense-filled sea voyage. A monumental historical event that not only made for one of the best reads I’ve even experienced, but a rich resource of everything seafaring and a peek into early nineteenth century society.
In its day the tragedy of the whaling ship Essex was received with the same global shock and horror as the sinking of the Titanic. It is the true story which later inspired Herman Melville to pen his classic novel, Moby Dick.
In August of 1819, the Essex left Nantucket with a newly-promoted captain and a crew of twenty to hunt and harvest whales for their oil. Shortly after leaving port, the Essex was caught in a storm of such proportions it knocked down the great sailing vessel, leaving her crew clinging to the rails for their lives. To my mind, there could be no coming back from that, but the Essex is put to straights and sails again. Against his better instincts, her captain is persuaded by his mates to continue the expedition despite damage to the ship and the loss of much-needed whaleboats. What ensues is a harrowing journey of disaster and setbacks, the most amazing of which is the attack of a giant sperm whale out for vengeance. It rams the Essex with humanlike intent and calculation, striking a devastating blow in defense of his own kind. The Essex crumbles and sinks beneath the whale’s massive skull, yet not a single seaman is lost.
|Actual drawing my Essex cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, of the whale's attack. Notice the whaleboats on the bottom edge manned with crew members.|
Nathaniel Philbrick has pulled together extensive research and firsthand accounts to tell a tale that reads like a suspense novel and puts you right there in the open boats, bobbing on a vast ocean, along with the awestruck survivors. I felt their breathless shock at the loss of their ship as they sat divided among three whaleboats, unable to believe their eyes. Fearing tales of cannibalism, they chart a course to avoid the nearby islands and instead head towards South America, over 2000 miles away. Although I find nothing heroic about the business of whaling, I felt deeply for these whaling men and was amazed at their courage and fortitude as they persevered in a desperate battle for survival.
If seafaring adventure is your passion, I promise you will be swept into this detailed historical account with the same enjoyment as you would a novel or a movie. Like me, you will have to stop and remind yourself – this really happened! For writers and nautical history buffs, In the Heart of the Sea is a valuable resource on ships, sailing, navigation, boat construction, whales, rank aboard ship, Nantucket and social class during the Federal era. Also included are pages of informative notes and a bibliography.
A major motion picture based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea is set to be released March 2015, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Helmsworth (People magazine’s sexiest man of the year 2014). I can’t wait to see this story on the big screen! I hope to come back then with a review of the movie. To view the trailer that led me to discover this incredible book, click here.
Lisa Norato is the author of the seafaring inspirational suspense novels Prize of My Heart and The Promise Keeper. She lives with her family on the New England coast in a cozy historic village with homes and churches dating into the eighteenth century.